The gap between the Circular Economy and Design
As our environmental impact increases and our resources deplete, there is an increasing need to move towards more regenerative solutions. A new economic model is on the rise: a Circular Economy. Still, with little adoption worldwide, what is the role of Design in this new context?
First things first… What is the Circular Economy?
Since the industrial revolution, we have adopted a mass-producing and consumption model. Every resource there is, we take and transform into a consumable, which we then use and when it reaches its end-of-life, we dispose without care of where it ends up.
This is called the linear economy. While this model encouraged economic growth in the 20th century, it is now facing many challenges as the world resources deplete and their prices become more volatile, and as the environment deteriorates and is pushed to its limits.
On the other hand, the circular economy is built upon what’s right in front of us: nature. It is a systemic economy model designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment¹. There is no waste, or, rather, what is waste for a living system becomes raw material for another. This creates a cycle, or a closed loop, where no waste is produced, where materials are in constant use and where each system helps each other thrive.
This is why the circular economy has become increasingly relevant and important in today’s context. It allows for a more feasible future.
However, shifting towards the circular economy is a challenge that involves more than making small changes in our behaviour. It is not enough to recycle, buy energy-efficient lightbulbs or vintage clothes and ride a bike to work. A fundamental change is required to happen not only in our individual lives, but in businesses, governments and societies.
The importance of Design
All the products around us and the services we are using are the result of design. A team sat down in a conference room (or nowadays, joined a zoom meeting) in order to make decisions on how a product or service was intended to be used, how it would look like, how it was going to be built, and so on.
The design stage is where a lot of decisions are made, and these decisions can be crucial to the circular economy:
- During this stage the team decides whether the packaging is going to be made out of plastic to reduce costs, or whether they will create reusable packaging and a retrieval model for clients to send it back (RePack).
- Whether the product will be designed for modularity to reduce waste and/or sold as a service so that they are kept longer in the loop (Fairphone and Gerrard Street).
- Whether instead of selling a product you will sell its designs to reduce shipping pollution and encourage the local economy in the process (opendesk).
Design influences if products or services become more linear or more circular.
So, if we as designers have the chance to transform our solutions and ideas into a more sustainable future, why is the world only 8.6% circular² (and declining)? What’s missing, and how can we get there?
Thinking about systems
Nature is about balance. It takes into account many interacting and influencing parts in order to create a system that feeds itself, which works together to keep growing.
The economy is part of a society, which exists within an ecosystem. In order to design for the circular economy we have to borrow the same principles, and understand these systems around us.
It is no longer sufficient to have a user-centric approach. This is a term of the past, and we need to move forward and expand our views and look towards the government and policies, suppliers and intermediaries and the local workforce. We need to acknowledge these and the ecosystem as the stakeholders we are designing for, just as we would users and the business.
Understanding the system as a whole will allow designers to leverage the different pieces to design circular solutions, and to consider their long-term impact. Who knows what unexpected partnerships can be created once you look at the entire picture.
Personally, experimenting with different tools such as the rich pictures and the intervention map has been useful to have a wider lens when gathering information for a new project.
The circular economy is a systemic approach. This means that it is not enough to design a product or service and at the end worry about making it more circular. The circular economy is not an afterthought, it needs to be embedded at the very core of the project. It needs to be part of the strategy, become part of the culture and be a pillar of people’s mindsets.
Unfortunately, few companies have a circular economy strategy in place, so it is important that designers (or really, anyone) take responsibility and push for actions that will lead closer to the circular economy.
In terms of the process, you can start by designing the brief in a way that the objective is circularity on its own. The brief is the strategy of your project, so it will drive the way in which you and your team approach it. Adapt the tools you use to include additional layers regarding the ecosystem and material flows. Transform and merge ideas together when ideating. Keep a circular thinking in every stage of the process.
Knowledge is power. The more people understand what the circular economy is and its economic advantage, the more inspired they will be to try it (especially those in positions of influence). Educate yourself and others. Find case studies and use them to generate interest. Look for trends in other sectors. Establish a good relationship with your client and encourage them to try new things. Don’t be afraid to push and share your ideas.
Designers are innovators, and the more challenges and constraints we are given, the more we push ourselves to create something great. The role of designers is no longer to simply create good experiences, but to use these experiences to improve the world we live in and develop sustainable living.
And don’t get me wrong, there are many barriers to achieving circularity. It involves investments in infrastructure and technology, it requires a change in policymaking and new and different strategies. An individual alone cannot change the world, so don’t put that much pressure over your shoulders. I’m a firm believer that many small contributions can generate change, so do what you can with what you have: get the word out, change how you work and work with others.
The gap between the circular economy and design starts because of a lack of purpose. If you are here it is because you are already interested in achieving change. Remember, the first step to make the transition towards the circular economy, is to design with intent.
 Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Towards the Circular Economy (2013)
Definitely go to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and browse through all of their resources if you haven’t yet.
 Circle Economy. The Circularity Gap Report 2020 (2020)
Other interesting reads:
Lu Ying. Why the New Model of Business is Regenerative by Design (2020)
Peter Checkland. Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective (2000)